Architect Michael Foster vividly remembers driving with colleagues to their first meeting with ambassadors of First Baptist Church of Clarendon.
Church officials had hired Foster's firm, MTFA Architecture, to develop proposals to rehabilitate their aging building in a way that would help the congregation cut maintenance costs while furthering its urban mission work. Proposals ranged from doing nothing to the 54-year-old sanctuary, at 1210 N. Highland St., to a far-reaching and unconventional plan to tear down the church and rebuild it with a smaller sanctuary in a 10-story high-rise with housing on top.
"I drew the short straw," recalled Foster, who was chosen to present the tear-down option. "[My colleagues] wanted to know if I was going to wear a bulletproof vest" to the presentation.
As it turned out, no vest was necessary. Church members embraced the plan to demolish their sanctuary, keeping only the steeple as a reminder of the church's past. The church's day-care center -- Arlington's largest private facility, caring for nearly 200 children each weekday -- would also remain on the property, although children might be moved off-site during part of the construction.
The best course of action, church officials agreed, was to use the church's valuable property -- it is a half block from the Clarendon Metro station and is valued at about $10 million -- as equity for a loan to finance the construction of a smaller church. The design would reduce the chapel by about half, to 400 seats, and include construction of a 118-unit apartment complex to be called The Views at Clarendon.
Public-private partnerships of this kind have been successful in other urban areas, such as Chicago, New York and St. Louis, Foster said, but the model is relatively uncommon in the Washington region.
Church officials said 53 of the apartments would be affordable housing units, set aside for those earning no more than 60 percent of the Washington region's median income. For instance, a household of four with an income of no more than $51,240 would qualify, as would a household of one with an income of no more than $35,868.
Officials say many of the building's residents would likely be nurses and teachers and other public servants who cannot afford to live in the community where they work.
While church officials say the plan is a perfect way to serve its members and the larger community, many in the adjacent Lyon Village neighborhood are fighting to have the plan scaled back. They say a towering complex would visually mar the entrance to their community, increase parking congestion and fail to fit in with the feel of the landscape.
Members of the Lyon Village Citizens Association voted to oppose the church proposal and continue to lobby the Arlington County Board to consider a smaller project.
The county Planning Commission heard the proposal -- which includes a rezoning request, land-use plan and site plan -- on June 30 and voted unanimously to defer a decision so the County Board could give it additional guidance on the priority of affordable housing in that area of the county and guidelines on building height.
"The church is saying we're opposed to affordable housing," said Lyon Village resident Mary Renkey, 43, who has lived in the Clarendon neighborhood for nine years. "We think it would be a great thing on the church site. It's just [that the project] is too high and too dense and it's not zoned for that. We want them to stay within the zoning allowed" -- 55 feet.
Under current plans, the building would be 103 feet tall.
If the County Board grants the rezoning, residents fear a domino effect in which other developers will be granted permission to rezone properties to put more high-rises in and around the neighborhood.
"You're not supposed to have towering buildings next to a residential neighborhood," said resident Myra Probasco, 43, whose family has lived in the same Lyon Village home since her grandfather bought it in 1944. "We're afraid if we let this happen, then it'll set a precedent. All the smaller office buildings along Wilson Boulevard could also be rezoned."
The Rev. Alan D. Stanford, who has served as the church's part-time pastor for two years and will take the lead full time in August, said he is frustrated with the project's opponents. He said they fail to see the larger picture.
"They want us to be the quaint entrance to their community, and we feel we have an obligation to provide ministry," Stanford said. "It is very important we find the needs and fill them."
In the 1950s, First Baptist was a suburban mega-church boasting a membership of 2,000. Today the church serves four congregations -- two that speak English, one Vietnamese and one Spanish -- that meet in the church at different times each Sunday. None comes close to filling the 800-seat chapel. The four congregations have 400 members combined.
Among its many missions, the church runs one of Northern Virginia's largest clothing closets for the needy and hosts a theological center for night students. The church is focused largely, Stanford said, on tending to 21st-century needs. Affordable housing is one of the area's most pressing needs, and his congregation is interested in addressing the problem, he said.
That mission is impossible, he said, with the limitations of the current church facility.
Church officials said the aging structure needs $4 million to $5 million in repairs and maintenance, an amount the current membership cannot support. Rather than sell the building, officials decided to explore other options.
"We had to ask ourselves if we were going to put our money into constant repair or into our ministry," Stanford said.
"The church of the holy roof repair," added Foster, who was helping Stanford and other church officials explain the project to a visitor.
"The main thing now in Arlington is the question of whether churches are going to use their property to meet the needs [of the people] like this," Stanford continued. "This is a test case for the faith community."
The County Board voted last week to defer any action on the proposal until Oct. 2 to allow the stakeholders to make refinements in the plan -- particularly concerning the height of the proposed apartment building -- and to ensure that the county's financial support, if provided, is a good value.
"The board believes there are significant community benefits to this project. However, further refinements are necessary to more appropriately balance the impacts and benefits of the project," board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D) said in her motion to defer the vote.
The church has hired the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing as a consultant. Church officials said they plan to borrow about $30 million to pay for the development. The money would come from several sources, including federal housing tax credits, an Arlington Housing Investment Fund loan and conventional financing. Rent from the apartments would be plowed back into the residential mortgage.
Stanford said the project is a solid idea. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block, he thinks, is change.
"People thought that the church would always be here, just the way it is," Stanford said. "The church wants to be a living, vital entity." The opponents of this project "want us to be an historic relic."